De Botton’s Religion for Atheists: community without commitment

What do you make of it? Obviously a talk full of chutzpah, and he raises some very interesting points, but I think De Botton has to answer the following questions (and maybe he does in the book, which I haven’t yet read):

He says he wants the ritualistic and communal aspects of religion without the doctrine. That reminds me of Oscar Wilde loving the incense and costume of Catholic mass without caring at all for its values. It is – or could easily become – a form of dandy-ish aestheticism.
It seems an individualistic, lonely project, for all De Botton’s longing for community. If you want the community of religion, then you need to commit, as a group, to a particular set of ethics, beliefs, or ‘doctrines’. The word ‘community’ comes from the same root as ‘commitment’, and I don’t think you can have the one without the other.
If you just want the art of Christianity, you can go to a gallery now, you don’t need a ‘new religion’. If you want the music of Christianity, you can go to a concert now. If that’s not communal enough for you, if you want something deeper, then you need to decide what you believe, find people who share those beliefs, and join together with them to build a community or movement.
Of course you can set up an ethical community which isn’t theistic – but that community would still needs to decide what ethics it follows, what it demands from its followers, and decide what is the end it is striving for. Action for Happiness, for example, is committed to a Utilitarian ethics. I don’t agree with its ethics, but at least it knows what it believes, and in that sense, it’s closer to a religion for atheists than anything De Botton has come up with – although it doesn’t really have the rituals yet, or know what its followers should do once they’ve joined. It’s still an incredibly shallow form of community, in terms of the ties between its members and the ethical commitment demanded from them.
De Botton’s School of Life, by contrast, does not offer people a particular ethics for them to commit to. That’s why it is so far from a church, despite its ‘Sunday sermons’. It is a philosophy shop – people pay to listen to various ideas, without having to commit to any of them. Nothing is demanded from them, apart from the entrance fee. I think it’s a great organisation, a really valuable addition to the cultural map, but I think we can agree it’s a long way from a religion (even if it is now setting up new outposts in other countries).

What De Botton presents in this talk is a set of instrumental techniques taken from religion, unattached now to any particular moral beliefs. He says we should make paintings didactic again, because it’s an effective technique for moral instruction. But what morals should they instruct? Mao used paintings to indoctrinate his people in Maoism. Surely you have to decide what morals your ‘religion for atheists’ is going to implant, rather than focusing entirely on techniques for indoctrination? Otherwise this is not a religion, it’s public relations – techniques for propaganda unattached to any particular moral values.
A genuine ‘religion for atheists’ would have to decide: what does it demand from its members? It would have to go beyond the rather easy market liberalism of the School of Life, and actually ask its members to make ethical sacrifices and commitments. Without that shared ethics and commitment, the community you end up with is inevitably going to be shallow, with much weaker ties than a genuine religion or philosophical movement. Not really a community at all, more a loose collection of strangers.
Emptying religion of ethical commitment and turning it into a set of techniques is like saying ‘I want sex without commitment’. OK, you can learn various techniques for good sex, you can even set up places where strangers go to bonk each other, but it’s not going to be as deep an experience – for that, you need shared values, and a commitment to each other.
To set up a genuine religious or philosophical movement, you have to have beliefs that people are willing to live for and even die for. People gave their life for Marxism, for Stoicism, for Buddhism. But who would be a martyr for the School of Life?
Any ‘religion for atheists’, if it is going to be serious and have a set of beliefs rather than personal techniques for personal happiness (which is just atomised self-help, not religion at all) then needs to decide: who sets these beliefs? Who sets the moral agenda? Who decides what values art should didactically spread? Who decides what moral values should be repeated by the followers throughout life? Who sets the creed? Who are the ‘experts’ or what Coleridge called the ‘clerisy‘? What if a follower disagrees with the prescribed ethics?
Any religious or philosophical community has to decide on its power structure – that’s true even of Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Pythagoreanism, Marxism and so on. If they become more than personal philosophies, if they become communities or movements, they have to grapple with such questions.
I’d like to see De Botton grappling with these difficult questions more. I don’t see him sweating, and I think philosophy should involve a bit of grappling, a bit of sweat. Otherwise you’re not really challenging yourself and your own arguments.
De Botton seems horrified by the thought of committing to particular beliefs, values, doctrines. He wants to move beyond market liberalism, but he’s afraid to, perhaps because he’s afraid it would put off his audience and make him seem Victorian and Thomas Carlyle-esque. He wants to keep his tongue in his cheek and his audience chuckling along. He wants to keep it light. No doctrines here, tra la la.
But I think secretly he really does want to start a religion for atheists, he really does want to move beyond market liberalism to a sort of moral paternalism (have a look at this piece he wrote last year, defending moral paternalism). He is Oscar Wilde, secretly longing to be Thomas Carlyle. But if you really want to be a new Thomas Carlyle, Alain, you need to appreciate the importance of being earnest.
To be fair to De Botton, I think he is grappling with these questions, and the School of Life as an organisation is a big step in the right direction. All of us in the grassroots practical philosophy movement are pondering these questions, and they’re not easy to solve – partly because no one wants to be accused of running a cult. I personally think he just needs to take the plunge, tell us what he believes, and embrace his inner Thomas Carlyle.


  • TGH says:

    Personally, and I think I'm getting the gist of good old Alain here, I don't think he's asking for an established 'religion for atheists' as such. Rather, he is making the case that, atheist or not/believer or not, there are so many qualities and ideas and ideals that all religions can bring that any atheist (or any human, of any religion/non-religion) can learn from and adopt without having to become aligned to any particular school of thought/theism.
    I don't think he is attempting (though I've not read the boo either but am looking forward to) to set up any defined 'school of thought' surrounding this. More likely, as he mentions in the brief q&a;, he is attempting to forward the argument that religion still has a lot to offer everyone without them having to take a path or affiliate themselves as being atheist or not.
    I applaud the man myself. Many, to my slight disbelief, do not, for bringing the thoughts and ideas of myriad thinkers/philosophers/theists into the public sphere in a non-academic and realistic way (despite the possible monetary concerns of the school of life).
    Long time reader, first time poster.
    Tim (love the blog by the way, much respect).

  • Jules Evans says:

    Hi Tim

    Those are all fair points.

    But a religion is something shared, communal, something that binds us to others. I dont think a 'religion for atheists' would make sense, unless it was social – and even political.

    he talks for example about making the arts didactic again, for the whole of society. I dont think this is a private, individual project he is envisaging: where would be the community in that? It appears to be a communal, social and even political project…strange as that sounds.

    Maybe he imagines the School of Life as the church for this new religion – its setting up branches in other countries now, Brazil, Korea, etc. He originally imagined it as like Epicurus' Garden, and Epicureanism genuinely was a 'religion for atheists'.

    But Epicurus demanded a lot more from his followers: they lived together, they shared their possessions, they committed to an ethical way of life.

    Anyway, as you say, interesting questions he is raising, as usual.

  • Filip Matous says:

    In my view, Alain's template also struggles to grapple with purpose / meaning. When people are sacrificing, grappling with the demands religion lays out, they are doing it in exchange for being one with the community and for the higher purpose.

    Where is the higher purpose in this? Also to assume a community needs no leader is historically and practically false. Leaders add emotion and drive. Imagine sports teams without key players, bands without lead singers, newspapers without star journalists…

    It's a nice venture what Alain is striving for but having left a religious community myself I can tell you what I miss. A community that picks you up when you are low, one that supports you financially if you are struggling, meeting in the same roof, year after year with many different generations discussing how to live and how to find comfort when things get heavy. The feeling that you are all in it together and that the journey matters.

    Doctrine that you can reflect on as a group to tell you if you are living well and what to do if you are off the course is incredibly powerful.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Yes, agree with your points Filip. not easy to build such an organisation!

  • gracefully says:

    before xmas i went to two carol services which sort of reconnected me to Christian values, through the prayers etc in between.

    the overriding benefit i gained from attending was a feeling of being acceptable/lovable and forgiven. this feeling lives with me still. this & the beauty of the church, the company, the warmth (the church was heated) seemed to attach me effortlessly to a religious bag of ethics that i'd imbibed years ago, like an intravenous drip. being of a slightly dyslexic character – my uptake of such nutrition is of a kind of all or nothing nature. That's to say that with the exhibition of goodwill, for instance, would come the associated inward 'genotype' characteristics of elderly parental concern for people:humility:meekness:self-deprecatingness:sexlessness:conformingness:etc.

    This phenomenon was by no means unpleasant. On the contrary, i felt and still feel a deep sense of calm and security as a result.

    However, i still feel inclined to betray Christianity.

    Yet, this may sound mad, bearing in mind the advantages I have described.

    I think it is because I am greedy and I want still more. I want peaks, even though I am perfectly happy. I want to be recognised as an individual, with unique attributes. I want more kicks, highs …. However, I think that if i go back to my old home-made philosophy, i might lose the feeling i got after going to church, arguably of a more constant type, scoring about 6/10 on the happiness scale.

    What i am trying to arrive at is that the configuration of ethics of any religion is crucially important in what it finally bestows. In a trice a religion can increase wellbeing, if it aligned itself with health ethics, for example.

    Somehow, also, I believe that painstaking attention to the nuts and bolts of a religion is particularly important for women – cos a possibly off-hand exhortation that women should be chaste, for example, (eg, the virgin birth), can have huge ramifications on how women are viewed in society at large and thus on how women feel about themselves. i am not saying that chasteness is not good advice – it may very well be in this age of s.t.i.s. and from an emotional point of view – just that those who form religions need to beware of the consequences of every facet they include.

  • Jayarava says:

    I just watched this today. My main reaction was relief to hear a famous atheist talking about religion in terms other than "religion is evil". The polarisation of the secular/religious debate seems disastrous to me – groups of people flinging barbs at each other, with no good will, no good intention, and then expressing surprise that the other side are not listening. Nether side has the moral high ground.

    I listened with interest to someone who found value in religious communities and lives, while clearly rejecting religious belief. Daniel Dennett's talk "What Should Replace Religion?" is the only other example I know of. Both are good humoured about it. de Botton mentions the great English virtue of politeness which I would endorse (and I'm not even English).

    One of the problems in trying to have a discussion is just how rude the Atheist side can be. It doesn't help to go around insulting people we disagree with.

    Whether Atheists take anything from his talk I don't know. I feel a bit sorry for Atheists whose loudest voices often seem deficient in emotional intelligence in inverse proportion to their huge IQ.

    As a balanced critique of religion, and as a vision of how religions might change in the future I think de Botton's talk is invaluable. I hope religious people everywhere watch it and pay attention – he identifies and illuminates our strengths and weaknesses. It's the beginning of a strategic plan for 21st century religion.

    In Buddhism a lot of people (on the internet anyway) are talking about "Secular Buddhism" or "Buddhism without Belief" (title of a book by Stephen Bachelor). While I am also developing critiques of religious metaphysics, I see the value in what we do as a religious community. So next week on my blog I'm spelling out why I think rebirth (or reincarnation) is not plausible or salient to being a Buddhist in the West. However I don't think this means we should stop telling the stories that make up our heritage, and performing the associated rituals. I think it means that we need to be savvy about what we're doing. A talk like Botton's helps me to see what savvy would look like. I look forward to reading his forthcoming book on the subject.

    One of my little catch phrases at the moment is "the smallest viable unit of humanity is not the individual". We are social primates. So the best environment for us is communal (just as the worst is enforced solitude). The question for the future is not how should individuals live, but how do we form viable communities, under current conditions, in order that all may prosper (and what prosper means is moot).


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